Rick Atchley (’78) should be a difficult man to get a hold of.
With 25 years under his ministery belt at The Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, two books written and guest-speaking appointments across the country, his schedule leaves little time for chit-chat.
But despite this prominence in the ministry realm, Atchley responds to emails within an hour of their sending, promptly returns missed phone calls and is a tweeting fiend, daily sharing his wise words and favorite foods (pizza, for the record) to chew on.
This sort of accessibility is an Atchley-classic, contributing to how a single congregation has expanded to three campuses totaling 6,000 members, plus as many as 10,000 tuning in to the internet-streamed sermons and podcasts. It is the same casual, yet captivating character that has earned him the honor as ACU’s 2014 Outstanding Alumnus of The Year.
Rick is married to ACU alum Jaimie (’81), and together they have three children, James, Morgan (’12) and Matt, a sophomore accounting major at ACU.
“My dad has been doing amazing things for the Kingdom of God for a very long time,” Matt said. “He is truly outstanding at everything he does in the workplace and especially as a dad. I would say it is very evident that God has had His hand on my dad for a very long time.”
For Matt, who was used to a father on Sunday duty, coming to college and swapping churches took some getting used to.
“It was actually really weird for me to go to a church where my dad wasn’t the preacher,” Matt said. “I grew up always talking about the church and what the sermon was going to be the next week with my dad, so it was definitely an odd change.”
With Atchley as preacher, churchgoers forget all about Sunday night football when he reaches the pulpit.
“Rick stands out to me as a preacher in the way that he engages his audience,” said Brock New, senior communications major from Fort Worth. “He reveals his personal struggles within the context of his lessons.”
But also, “he has great preacher jokes,” New said.
The minister is notorious for his intentional choice of words.
“Every sermon is full of alliterations, chiasmus and puns,” said Madeline Orr, junior convergence journalism major from North Richland Hills. “When I was little, I thought that all sermons required a certain of amount of cleverness like his.”
Atchley is attention-grabbing, but equally unapologetic when it comes to tackling challenging topics.
“Rick is never sugar-coating Christianity,” said Riley Thannum, junior elementary education major from North Richland Hills. “He doesn’t hold back on the hard stuff. He is very straightforward on how he believes Christians are called to live, and being that way challenges the people of the church.”
Thannum, New and Orr are only a few of many ACU students who call The Hills their “home church,” growing up with Atchley as a minister, as well as a mentor.
“When I was younger, I think I took Rick’s talent for granted,” Orr said. “When I visited other churches, I was always taken aback by how fortunate I was to get to listen to him every Sunday.”
But Atchley goes beyond once-a-week sermons, focusing on the bigger-ticket target: expanding the Kingdom.
“He constantly reminds the church of our vision and our purpose and I think that has been important in a growth speak process that can be difficult for many churches,” Orr said.
This is perhaps why Atchley was invited to address students during ACU’s opening Chapel last fall and then spoke to faculty afterward. He was brought in as outside council in how the university should approach the issue of its faculty-hiring policy.
“It is here I learned the mission of God was bigger than our traditions,” Atchley told faculty. “It is here I learned the Kingdom of God was bigger than our tribe. This school taught me to read the Bible and to preach the Gospel in a way that destroys sectarian loyalty. We are reaping what we, I think, rightly have sown for decades: a more robust, a more biblical, a more gracious, a more Christ-exalting way to understand scripture.”
His progressive view has changed the game of ministry, paving the way for the next crop of preachers, such as Highland Church of Christ’s Jonathan Storment.
In a blog post thanking Atchley for his example and personal involvment, Storment wrote he was first wowed by Atchley’s gift.
“I heard you preach for the first time and thought, ‘This guy’s got some game,'” Storment said.
Storment credits Atchley for teaching him how to pastor, having worked down the hall from Atchley for eight years at The Hills before coming to Abilene.
“Rick taught me how to love a church, not just to preach to one,” Storment said in an interview. “I got a first-hand view of how he made time for people who needed it the most, whether it’s at the foot of a hospital bed or at his desk for counseling.”
When Rick preaches, Storment said, he’s not just preaching to the ambiguous masses, but rather, for the people he knows and loves.
“I’d be honored if my life and ministry was half that of yours,” his post closed.
Atchley’s ability to relate to the next generation has made his influence widespread, geographically and generationally.
It is that same accessible nature that makes it easy for others to imagine just who Rick Atchley was during his own student days.
“I have thought about this before,” New said. “It’s obvious that he was a studious type. But I imagine Rick with a sidekick like Max Lucado. They had to have gotten into some type of trouble. I also see him as that guy in the Gardner lobby playing guitar, trying to woo the women. Think John Denver minus the drugs and plane crash.”
Many found his social club membership in Galaxy the most striking element on his ACU resume.
“I find it very amusing that he was a Moonie. I wouldn’t have guessed that,” Thannum said.
“He probably was constantly in the library,” said Karlie Hatchett, a senior communications major from Fort Worth. “But, he was enough of a ladies’ man to land his precious wife, so that Moonie smile must be good for something.”
“As a college student, I assume that Rick was 100 percent, stereotypical Moonie,” Orr said. “As a member of Galaxy, I would like to think he gave some of the best inspiration Sing Song or intramural speeches their club has ever had.”
“My best bet is that he ate a lot of pizza, and prayed very hard that he could convince Jaimie Lyda to marry him,” Storment said.
On Sunday, Atchley will be presented with the acclaimed award at the Alumni Day Luncheon. Ballots are open for anyone to submit a nomination, garnering a sea of nominees each year. Atchley was selected from the score of candidates submitted to the ACU Alumni Advisory Board.
“A variety of discussion, meetings and prayer go into narrowing down the large number of candidates every year,” said Craig Fisher, director of Alumni Relations.
“I’ve seen Rick up-close, as a personal friend and on a national, global level,” he said. “The impact he has made uniting churches and on Christians around the world is phenomenal. He is such a deserving recipient of this award.”
But Atchley would disagree.
“I don’t feel deserving,” he said. “I love what I do, and I feel called to do what I do, and I feel it’s important – but I don’t feel I do what I do any more faithfully than hundreds of graduates from ACU. I’m thankful my alma mater feels that what people like me do is successful, too.”
But even with a flood of success and influence, Atchley’s character makes it clear his career is his calling, and being named “outstanding” won’t make him any less Kingdom-pursuing or any less Twitter-present.